More on prisoner treatment

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Brian Palmer points out that while the Bush administration opposes the anti-torture bill, they also disclaim responsibility for reported prisoner abuses:
Going along with your argument, of course, is that the White House claims that they're -not- torturing people, and only a few bad apples are mistreating prisoners. So the restriction would, if Bush were being honest, only be theoretical and not affect day-to-day operations at all.

This isn't necessarily inconsistent, of course. The McCain amendment forbids interrogation techniques "not authorized by and listed in the United States Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation" and "ruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment." The charitable interpretation here is that the Administration want to be able to use techniques that aren't in the army field manual but fall short of the kind of abuse that happened at Abu Ghraib. It would be interesting to hear them explain what techniques those are. Perhaps they could be added to the Army Field Manual. If they're not prepared to do that, doesn't that say something?

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Well, to me it says two things that I already knew:

1) The government doesn't want future detainees to be able to know in exquisite detail exactly what their interrogators are--and more important, aren't--permitted to do to them, and thus to be able to sleep (relatively) easy at night during their detention, knowing the precise limits of their future discomforts, even if they should refuse to cooperate.

2) There are a great many things that the public want the government to do for them--but without any explicit endorsement of their doing so. (A classic example is tolerance of prison rape, which appears, judging by the jocularity with which it's widely treated, to be generally condoned, even if hardly anyone would actually endorse its official use as a punishment.)

I'm quite uneasy about the second problem, and have said so before. Regarding the first problem, on the other hand, I'm much more inclined to cut the government considerable slack. Covert operations abroad are a good analogy--I'd like the government to be able to consult openly with the public about the limits of such activities on a case-by-case basis, but unfortunately, such public consultation also alerts the targets of those same activities. In practice, then, the best compromise is secret consultation with all branches of government, acting as the public's representatives.

By the way, I strongly dislike the McCain amendment's language prohibiting "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." Imprisonment is by itself arguably cruel, inhuman and degrading, as would be any punishment heaped on top of it. Those who think that there's any kind of line--let alone a clear one--between the standard and necessary methods of handling prisoners--let alone suspected terrorists--and "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment", are simply fooling themselves.


Why wouldn't the same argument (there's no clear line) apply to prohibitions on torture or cruel and inhuman punishment within the US? Why doesn't the same argument lead to the conclusion that we should get rid of laws against fraud and child abuse, both of which have a similar "no clear line" problem?

I would hope that the laws against fraud and child abuse do draw clear lines, even if they're somewhat arbitrary. Otherwise, how is one supposed to know if one is breaking the law or not?

The coverage I've seen of the recent Senate bill, though, suggests that it's more in line with the Constitutional prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishment" and the international legal prohibitions of "torture"--that is, completely lacking in specifics or definitions, and thus an open-ended invitation to any self-appointed activist or crusading judge to reinterpret it in new, ever-broader ways, ad nauseam.

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